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Phonies in Public Accounting

You are prepping for a client meeting and a wave of anxiety hits you. You feel in over your head. Your palms start to sweat. Why on earth would someone hire you? You start to spiral and tell yourself “I don’t know anything. I’m a phony. A fraud…” 

You think, “What will the client do if they find out that you aren’t as smart as they once thought?” You're terrified someone will expose you for who you really are.

Sound familiar?

Apparently, this feeling is common. It even has a name — impostor syndrome, or impostor phenomenon, if you prefer.

Simply put, it’s a blend of self-doubt and anxiety that stems from feeling like you aren’t “good enough” and woefully ill prepared. The term, coined in the 1970s by psychologists Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Clance, describes in their words a “subjective experience of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement."

Perfectionists beware

According to a column from the American Psychology Association:

The impostor phenomenon and perfectionism often go hand in hand. So-called impostors think every task they tackle has to be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help. That perfectionism can lead to two typical responses, according to Clance. An impostor may procrastinate, putting off an assignment out of fear that he or she won't be able to complete it to the necessary high standards. Or, he or she may over prepare, spending much more time on a task than is necessary.

Is “over preparing” a thing? I refuse to believe it. If you are self-proclaimed perfectionist and overachiever, this one’s for you. Mix in a CPA credential and a MAcc… I’d be surprised if you didn’t feel this way once and awhile.

Big 4 breeding ground

Public accounting culture is a prime environment for young professionals to feel impostor syndrome. High turnover cultivates a “sink or swim” culture. The profession is full of recent grads with little to no prior work experience. It is a recipe for unease. Not to mention, most folks entering into the profession have flashy credentials signifying knowledge that add to the pressure to perform well. That pressure can be oppressive. You may even be scared to say “I don’t know.”

Finally, adding insult to injury, the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct is very direct when it comes to competence:

Each member is responsible for assessing his or her own competence of evaluating whether education, experience, and judgment are adequate for the responsibility to be assumed.

If a member is unable to gain sufficient competence, the member should suggest, in fairness to the client an public, the engagement of a competent person to perform the needed professional service, either independently or as an associate.

No wonder imposter syndrome is a normal experience for accounting firm staff.

Combating the feeling

A podcast recorded for UX designers — another super technical and ever evolving profession — tackled some ways to fight back against those annoying voices in your head. The suggestions boil down to having confidence in your abilities (easier said than done, I know) and embracing failure as a positive stepping stone. It does help to fail without reprimand, although that’s on the company and out of your control most of the time. 

Big picture, it’s impossible to know everything. I wonder if there is even such thing as an “expert” anymore? Our world is changing so rapidly, blink and you might miss something new and important (and look really dumb when someone calls you out for not staying on top of it).

Maybe that’s the point. It’s not a big deal after all.

Have you been a victim of imposter syndrome? Chime in, you big phonies.

Image: iStockphoto